A hazy orange sky reflects a golden light on a six-lane roadway filled with personal vehicles.
Credit: Creative Commons
Dr. Shelley Francis is co-founder of EVHybridNoire, the nation’s largest network of Black people and people of color who are enthusiastic about shifting away from fossil fuels. Francis co-wrote this op-ed with Chispa National Director Johana Vicente.

If you are Black, Latinx, or a member of an Indigenous community, you are far more likely than a white person to know someone firsthand who has died of COVID-19.

This mirrors what is happening in cities, suburbs, rural areas and tribal lands across the U.S. — our communities are being ravaged by the virus. As of mid-January, more than 375,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, with people of color between 2.2 to 2.5  times more likely to have died from the virus than whites of the same age

There are a number of longstanding racial inequities rooted in our current economic and social systems that contribute to this disparity — such as Black, Latinx and Indigenous people’s higher representation in the “essential workforce” with more exposure to the public (and hence, the virus), and our unequal access to quality healthcare and paid sick leave — just to name a few. But one inequity that is directly linked to COVID-19 mortality is our higher exposure to air pollution. 

It is no secret that wealthier and white Americans — given their access to banks, land, and political power for generations — are more likely to live in areas with less air pollution than predominantly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. It’s also no surprise that, on average, wealthier and white Americans tend to consume more and live in larger homes and are responsible for generating more air pollution than lower-income households and communities of color. Much of this air pollution hovers squarely over the backyards of frontline communities, who — because of structural racism — are more likely to live near power plants, factories, and transportation corridors and shipping hubs.

If you don’t believe this, ask this question: why is a city’s “West End” likely to be fashionable and the “East End” is low rent? It’s because, historically, rich folks lived upwind from the pollution and poor people lived downwind. Today, the lion’s share of the air pollution impacting our communities is from the transportation sector — from the vans, taxis, Ubers, buses, postal trucks, and big rigs barreling down highways and chugging through cities, moving people to and from work, school and errands, and delivering Amazon and GrubHub orders to those lucky enough to work from home. 

And who is driving those delivery vans, trucks, taxis, and buses? Yep, you guessed it — a growing number of people of color, specifically Black Americans. And who is riding public transit and school buses in greater numbers? Right again — mostly Black and Latinx people — including our kids. Research shows that kids riding diesel school buses breathe in five to 15 times more toxins than they would otherwise. Diesel has also been linked to increased asthma rates, the number one cause of school absences.

Protecting our children’s health is the key reason why Chispa, a Latinx organizing program of the League of Conservation Voters, launched the Clean Buses for Healthy Niños campaign to call on governors and decision-makers to put the health of our children and families first by investing in zero-emission, electric school buses. 

As the nation turns its attention to rebuilding the economy in the face of a global pandemic, we cannot allow these racial and health disparities to be perpetuated. We must insist on investing in clean transportation options, technologies, training, and employment opportunities for frontline communities, and we must rebuild in a way that is informed by, invests in, and uplifts those most impacted and works to undo the environmental racism that plagues our communities. 

A recently released report by Rewiring America found that a concerted effort in electrifying our economy — including, importantly, our transportation sector — could create up to 25 million jobs over the next 15 years. Let’s make sure our bright and talented workforce and entrepreneurs are prepared for and creating employment opportunities in our own communities. 

A growing number of community-led organizations like ours are working to advance transportation electrification goals across the country, and there are huge legislative opportunities in Virginia — right here, right now — to make a difference. If there ever was a time to double down on clean transportation, this is it. Our communities and our futures depend on it.